Communalising a Lit Fest
Communalising a Lit Fest
By Jagdeep Dhankhar
Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF) has again put to centre stage the free speech debate. This universally accepted human right became hostage to politicians in bed with the extremists. Fearful of the adverse impact of Rushdie’s presence in any form will have on the Muslim vote-bank in UP the theory of threat was conjured. Congress Government in the State with the backing of its political masters played the worst vote-bank politics.
A question stares in the face of every Indian in the wake of this shameful drama—Are we a democratic nation that willingly plays hostage to those promoting intolerance. This will go down as a milestone in the sinister politics of appeasement that Congress is playing at the cost of national interests and our Constitutional values. The largest democracy became a centre of intolerance and in the process got closer to Iran and China.
The most unexpected development happened at the Jaipur Literary Festival. Salman Rushdie, the author of the banned Satanic Verses made his presence felt by his absence. Petty politics tripped Rushdie participation in JLF in any form. This was on account of ridiculous episode of invented threat. Even a video interaction was aborted.
The episode has evoked all round condemnation and concern. Our democracy has taken a big hit. Our image on human rights issue has hugely suffered. The unsavoury spectacle has raised several constitutional and human rights issues.
But for this unsavoury episode, the JLF was a huge success. Thousands thronged to be at the venue. Even the HRD Minister Kapil Sibal could not find way to one of the halls as it was packed. Jaipur as a city was elevated to a new higher slot.
Satanic Verses came to be banned in India by the Rajiv Gandhi Government in 80’s. This led to Rushdie writing a passionate letter to Rajiv in 1988 raising several fundamental issues of right to free speech and human rights. Rushdie visited India several times after the ban on the book. According to Rushdie the book is not banned in several Muslim countries.
Initially it was indicated by the organisers that the author of the controversial banned book Satanic Verses Salman Rusdie would attend the JLF. The Congress antenna was up in view of the elections in UP. His presence was perceived as puncturing its politics of appeasement.
The State machinery seems to have overworked on this issue. The Rajasthan Chief Minister made a significant two-day trip to Delhi. He confabulated with several bigwigs including the Union Home Minister.
The administration in Rajasthan heaved a sigh of relief when Rushdie gave out that due to the communicated threat perception he would stay away.This stand turned out to be short lived as Rushdie tweeted that he had been cheated. As per him he was deliberately fed wrong inputs of threat perception. A war of words broke out.
However, the organisers of JLF, who indeed performed commendably, engaged in the damage control. It came to be indicated that on the last day of JLF, Rushdie would be able to engage in video chat. This enthused the lovers of the JLF as also those who cherish the sublime right of speech and expression.
The subsequent events have shamed all those who believe in the working of democracy. The Rushdie video chat was abandoned due to law and order situation. The State apparatus fired the salvo from the shoulder of the owner of the property who from a statement indicated that human and property safety was of paramount consideration. If one is to believe this law and order syndrome then there is failure of constitutional machinery in Rajasthan and the Government has no business to be in saddle.
There can be no two opinions now that the authorities managed to thwart even video chat by Rushdie. The success of the State apparatus has indeed shocked all who believe in rule of law. The entire scandalous mechanism has subverted our constitutional values. Fundamental Right to Speech and Expression has suffered a jolt. In the process basic human rights have been ignored by the State apparatus.
There can be no dispute that those opposed to Rushdie for whatever reason had the fundamental right to protest. No one can deny them this right to protest. Similarly Rushdie has the freedom to express himself. The ban on his book Satanic Verses does not impose a ban on his movements or ideas. Under no circumstances the right of Rushdie to express himself can be taken away on the basis of protest by others.
Similarly the bogey of law and order has no basis. A government that fails to maintain law and order has no legitimate right to stay in saddle. The twin alibis by the Government cannot carry any credibility and deserve outright rejection. Those who engaged in mid-night crackdown on the Ramdev led peaceful agitators at the Ram Lila ground in Delhi on the law and order issue shamelessly promoted and managed to generate this scenario.
Our Constitution has indeed given to us under Article 19(1)(a) Fundamental Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression. This right can be qualified only by a law and not by an executive order or action. Such a law only permits reasonable restriction on such right in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, security of state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality.
This right means right to criticise. It is core of democracy. None has freedom to destroy this freedom. Freedom of expression and freedom to dissent are essential to democracy. It is vital for realisation of human rights. Rabindranath Tagore held freedom of expression as the greatest freedom.
Justice HR Khanna, an all time great judge, asserted that ‘freedom to read is implicit in the right to speech and expression’. A climate of tolerance is an essential requisite for the freedom of expression and freedom to read. No one however mighty at the moment has a right to prevent free flow of ideas.
In the famous case of Romesh Thapar versus State of Madras the Supreme Court in 1950 held that Freedom of Speech and Expression includes freedom of propagation of ideas and that freedom is ensured by circulation.
All those who engaged in this unseemly spectacle of keeping Rushdie from any form of participation forgot that any attempt to control right to expression from outside is likely to cause more harm than good.
There is apparently considerable force in Rushdie’s assertion that the protests linked to UP elections. Politics has tripped Rushdie’s presence in any form.
As a nation that prides itself on its right to vibrant and multifaceted freedom of expression we need to be alarmed at significant erosion of this valuable human right. This State managed trailer at JLF needs to be resisted with full force.
Our failure and silence will embolden them to impose a perennial gag on the Hindu majority by enacting the draconian Communal and Targetted Violence Bill. That indeed will be a sad day for our democracy and civilisation s as then right to freedom of speech and expression will be part of history.